Adagio for Strings (1935) Samuel Barber (West Chester, PA, 1910 - New York, 1981)
Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings is one of those emblematic pieces without which American music in the 20th century would never be what it is. It became known far beyond the classical music world when Oliver Stone used it in his 1986 movie Platoon about the Vietnam War, as a musical symbol of the homes the soldiers had left behind. It was a most appropriate symbol as Barber managed to capture a sense of peaceful beauty, combining great simplicity with great expressive power.
A quietly meandering melody gradually grows in volume and intensity until it reaches a passionate climax and then fades back again to a whispered conclusion. All transitions are perfectly seamless and arrive with a sense of complete inevitability; yet the emotional effect is not diminished even after hundreds of hearings.
Originally, the Adagio was the slow movement in Barber’s String Quartet, Op. 11. The composer arranged it for string orchestra at the request of Arturo Toscanini, who gave the premiere of the new version on November 5, 1938, with the NBC Symphony, catapulting the 25-year-old composer to international fame.
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (1961) Leonard Bernstein (Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1918 – New York, 1990)
Not many Broadway musicals have made the crossover into the symphonic repertoire, and fewer still have achieved the classic status that belongs to West Side Story. It seems that this Bernstein-Laurents-Sondheim collaboration, first performed in 1957 at New York's Winter Garden Theatre, had everything one could wish for. One of the world's greatest plays (Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet) was brilliantly adapted as a contemporary saga with a timely social message (ethnic hostility in modern New York City). And the musical score, bold, dissonant, intricate, yet irresistible in its rhythmic richness, drives home the social message while singing a paean to love and providing supreme entertainment all at the same time.
It is a tribute to Bernstein's music that it is viable even in purely instrumental form without lyrics or staging, and it could be arranged as a suite along the lines of those drawn from classical operas and ballets. (In fact, choreography was an important element of West Side Story in both its stage and film versions.) Bernstein liked to stress the links of his musicals with the operatic tradition. After all, opera used to be a popular form of entertainment in many European countries, and Bernstein tried to reclaim this function of the art form that "modern classical" opera had all but abandoned.
The sections in the "Symphonic Dances”—a suite arranged from the show in 1961—are played without pauses between them. The excerpts do not follow the order in which they appear in the show, their order is, rather, based on “feel,” as Sid Ramin, who collaborated with Bernstein on the suite, put it in his preface to the printed score.
The suite opens with the nervous, syncopated prologue from the show in which the rivalry of the two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, is acted out in pantomime. Next, we hear “Somewhere there’s a place for us” and “Scherzo,” two excerpts from the musical’s dream ballet sequence. “Mambo” and “Cha Cha” are from the scene at the gym where the two protagonists, Tony and Maria, first meet during a dance. The music of the “Meeting Scene” accompanies their first words to one another. In the “Cool” Fugue the Jets make a show of their fierce power. The “Rumble” is the climactic showdown between the two gangs where the leaders of both groups are killed. The poignant, lyrical Finale recalls the dream of “Somewhere” as, after so much agitation and violence, the piece ends in a whisper.
In these Symphonic Dances, Bernstein accomplished the amazing feat of bridging the worlds of Broadway and Carnegie Hall as only he could do, being equally at home in both places. The symphonic version allows the jazzy melodies and rhythms to shine in full orchestral splendor, The score uses many contemporary techniques that are unusually advanced for a Broadway musical. Complex patterns such as notes grouped in sevens across measures of 2/4 make the music more exciting without making it any less accessible. The tritone (augmented fourth), that most dissonant and tonally unstable interval, runs like a leitmotif through the entire score. And the Jets’ cynical warning, “Keep cooly cool, boy,” is developed as, of all things, a fugue (although one shouldn’t necessarily think of J.S. Bach here).
Yet Bernstein and his collaborators didn’t hesitate to ask “as many members of the orchestra as possible” to snap with their fingers for a special percussion effect, and even to shout “Mambo!”—something one would hardly expect from a symphony orchestra. The trap set finds a natural niche in the midst of the percussion section. Despite their newly-won symphonic garb, the jazz dances of the show, lose nothing of their original flavor.
By calling his suite “Symphonic Dances,” Bernstein may have intended a secret nod to Rachmaninoff, who had used the same title in his final work. Yet it is more likely that he wanted to emphasize his focus on the instrumental dances from the show, to the exclusion of most of the songs. Had he included the great hits “Tonight,” “Maria,” or “America,” we would inevitably be reminded of the lyrics (masterpieces in their own right by Stephen Sondheim). By grouping (and regrouping) the instrumental dances, Bernstein not only kept the rhythmic momentum going throughout but also created a piece that stood entirely on its own. You don’t have to know the lyrics, indeed you don’t even have to know the plot of West Side Story to enjoy the Symphonic Dances as one of Bernstein’s greatest orchestral scores.
The Firebird (1910) Igor Stravinsky (Oranienbaum, nr. St. Petersburg, 1882 – New York, 1971)
Sergei Diaghilev’s Paris-based "Ballets Russes" was one of the greatest ballet companies in history that united many of the best dancers of its time. Diaghilev, the director, combined the soul of a brilliant artist with the mind and skills of a shrewd businessman. He was committed to exciting and innovative productions, and he sought out the best modern artists and composers available. Among musicians alone, he worked over the years with Debussy, Ravel, Falla, Prokofiev, and others. However, he never made a more sensational nor a more fruitful musical discovery than when he engaged the 27-year-old Igor Stravinsky to write the music for Michel Fokine's new ballet, The Firebird. It was the start of a long collaboration that was to give the world Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, Les Noces, Mavra, and Apollon Musagète, and which ended only shortly before Diaghilev's death in 1929.
Since the end of the 19th century, there had been a great affinity between Russia and France. The political alliance between the two countries had brought Russia closer to France (France had always been close to Russia where French had long been the language of the educated classes). At the same time, the geographical distance and the difference in culture endowed things Russian with an exotic flavor in the eyes of the French. Both Debussy and Ravel admired and were influenced by the music of the 19th-century Russian masters Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.
To create a story of an appropriately exotic flavor, Fokine used several Russian fairy-tales in the scenario of The Firebird. The stories of the beneficent Firebird and the evil ogre Kashchei the Immortal are combined in an ingenious plot, which Eric Walter White summarized in his standard book on Stravinsky as follows:
A young Prince, Ivan Tsarevich, wanders into Kashchei's magic garden at night in pursuit of the Firebird, whom he finds fluttering round a tree bearing golden apples. He captures it and extracts a feather as forfeit before agreeing to let it go. He then meets a group of thirteen maidens and falls in love with one of them, only to find that she and the other twelve maidens are princesses under the spell of Kashchei.
When dawn comes and the princesses have to return to Kashchei’s palace, he breaks open the gates to follow them inside; but he is captured by Kashschei’s guardian monsters and is about to suffer the usual penalty of petrifaction, when he remembers the magic feather. He waves it; and at his summons the Firebird appears and reveals to him the secret of Kashchei’s immortality [his soul, in the form of an egg, is preserved in a casket]. Opening the casket, Ivan smashes the vital egg, and the ogre immediately expires. His enchantments dissolve, all the captives are freed, and Ivan and his Tsarevna are betrothed with due solemnity.
According to the original plans, the music for The Firebird was to be written by Nikolai Tcherepnin (1873-1945, and, after Tcherepnin’s withdrawal, by Anatoli Lyadov (1855-1914) or Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936). None of these more experienced composers delivered the score on time, so Diaghilev approached Stravinsky, who had already worked for him as an orchestrator, and whose orchestral piece Fireworks had greatly impressed him. The young composer, honored by the commission, put aside the opera The Nightingale whose first act he had just completed, and began work on the ballet.
The complete ballet consists of 19 musical numbers. Eighteen of these belong to the first tableau and the last number alone constitutes the second tableau. The music had to follow the plot very closely, in a strict descriptive style we don't often find in Stravinsky's works.
To describe the magic world of fairy-birds and evil sorcerers, Stravinsky had a whole tradition to build on, a tradition he had inherited from his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov. In the last years before his death in 1908, Rimsky had written three operas on fantastic subjects, one of which was titled Kashchei the Immortal (the two others were The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and The Golden Cockerel). In his fantastic operas as elsewhere, Rimsky-Korsakov made ample use of a special scale Russian musicians knew as the "Rimsky scale," which was also adopted by the master's most famous pupil. (The "Rimsky" scale, also known as the "octatonic" scale, consists of the regular alternation of half-steps and whole steps: C - C sharp - D sharp - E - F sharp - G - A - B flat). This particular grouping of tones, lying outside the major-minor system, is always associated with the evil Kashchei. The music of the magical Firebird is also chromatic in nature, related in part to the Kashchei music. The motifs of the Tsarevich, on the other hand, are purely diatonic (using a traditional seven-note scale) and are derived from a central type of Russian folksong known as the “long-drawn-out” song (protyazhnaya pesnya). Both the story and the musical style of the ballet seemed highly original in the West, although in fact, both grew out of an indigenous Russian tradition.
Yet for all the Rimsky influence, Stravinky’s first ballet shows a remarkable degree of individuality. The handling of rhythm in particular (with already a few typical Stravinskyan ostinatos, or "stubbornly" repeated figures) is quite innovative, and the orchestration reveals the hand of a true master. Even at this early age, Stravinsky knew how to draw the most spectacular effects from his enormous orchestra. One may cite special items like the famous harmonic arpeggios (broken chords) for strings in the introduction or the solos for the small D-clarinet at several points. But even more important are the many new combinations of instrumental colors appearing on virtually every page of the score.
The score contains numerous section titles that correspond to the stage action, though there are no actual pauses in the music. The sections, with a brief musical desciption of each, are as follows:
The Introduction begins with the rumble of low strings, trombones and bassoons, with the higher-pitched instruments entering gradually as the curtain rises on the...
The Enchanted Garden of Kashchei. The motif of the introduction is taken over by the violins, punctuated by short figures in the woodwind, harp, and celesta.
Appearance of the Firebird, Pursued by Prince Ivan. For the first time, the music becomes more agitated as the anguished fluttering of the bird is contrasted with a simple, Russian-flavored theme representing the prince. After a measure of general rest, the
Dance of the Firebird begins. The melody in this brilliantly orchestrated dance is derived entirely from sound color, with the piccolo flute and piccolo clarinet taking the lead; the harp and the strings accompany with trills and broken chords. The pizzicati (plucked strings) in the cello provide the rhythmic support.
Capture of the Firebird by Prince Ivan. The flourishes in the woodwind come to a sudden standstill, and the repeated chords in the four horns indicate that the bird is no longer free to move.
The Firebird's Supplications. A slow, expressive melody is played by solo viola, oboe and English horn, later taken over by the violins. The tempo speeds up as the firebird's plea becomes more insistent (flute and oboe solos). After a return of the slower theme, the prince (solo horn) lets the bird go, and the flaps of its wings can be heard in the woodwind.
The Appearance of the Thirteen Enchanted Princesses is announced by a magical chord progression in the violins. A series of expressive solos create a tender, lyrical mood.
The Princesses' Game with the Golden Apples (Scherzo). Dominated by fast-moving sixteenth-notes in the strings, the scherzo is briefly interrupted by a lyrical middle section with a clarinet solo.
Sudden Appearance of Prince Ivan. As before, the prince is represented by the solo horn and a simple Russian melody in the minor mode.
Khorovod (Round Dance) of the Princesses. One of the ballet's great melodies is introduced by the solo oboe in a slow tempo. The actual dance is slightly faster; the strings and woodwind are joined, after a while, by the first horn.
Daybreak. A trumpet call heralds the arrival of the dawn. A brief and forward-thrusting theme indicates that Prince Ivan is approaching the place where he will meet his great challenge.
Three measures of energetic string scales: Prince Ivan Penetrates Kashchei's Castle.
Magic Carillon, Appearance of Kashchei's Monster Guardians, and Capture of Prince Ivan. The distinctive melodic style of the evil sorcerer appears here for the first time. The monsters charge Prince Ivan as we hear a massive orchestral buildup; the motion stops abruptly as he is captured (not unlike what happened to the Firebird earlier).
The Arrival of Kashchei the Immortal is proclaimed by austere brass chords and frightening tremolos in strings and percussion.
Dialogue of Kashchei and Prince Ivan. It seems that the poor prince can hardly get a word in edgewise in this dialog, for the short section is entirely dominated by the music of the sorcerer.
Intercession of the Princesses. The solo violin plays the princesses' theme from earlier in the ballet, but the melody is cut short by Kashchei's wild brass and percussion sounds.
Appearance of the Firebird. This brief Allegro section, in which the firebird's familiar musical style is in evidence throughout, leads directly into the
Dance of Kashchei's Retinue, Enchanted by the Firebird. More and more of Kashchei's minions are swept up in the ecstatic dance, with a gradual crescendo leading to a tutti climax.
Infernal Dance of all Kashchei's Subjects. A fast timpani roll introduces a syncopated motif arising from the lower registers (bassoons, horn, tuba) and gradually taken over by the entire orchestra. There is a lyrical countersubject symbolizing the plight of Kashchei's prisoners.
As a total contrast, the Lullaby (Firebird) is a delicate song for solo bassoon, accompanied by harps and muted strings.
A dissonant fanfare accompanies Kashchei's Awakening. But the evil sorcerer's end is imminent: a powerful tutti downbeat and a rapidly descending orchestral figure accompanied by a decrescendo on the bass drum depict
Kashchei's Death, followed by Profound Darkness—a short interlude of divided string tremolos. The scene changes:
Disappearance of Kashchei's Palace and Magical Creations, Return to Life of the Petrified Knights, General Rejoicing. The finale, in which everyone celebrates the wedding of Prince Ivan and the princess, contains what is probably the most famous Russian folksong in in the ballet. This beautiful melody, first played by the first horn (Ivan's instrument), grows in volume and orchestration until the full orchestra plays it. Here a significant rhythmic change is introduced: the symmetrical triple meter (3/2) is transformed into an asymmetrical 7/4, bringing the music to its final culmination point.